Murder and Gourmet Food?
When I was a kid growing up in Wyoming, long winters encouraged outdoor sports: skiing, ice-skating and snow-camping, but at night, sometimes eschewing homework, I’d read voraciously.
One of my favorite childhood authors was Rex Stout, who wrote at least 50 or more Nero Wolfe novels and/or short stories. Between 1934 and 1974, he wrote 39 novels and 33 short stories. Although I started reading them in the Pinedale Public Library, later they were published in paperback. I kept reading and re-reading them as an adult. I think I might own most of them.
Wolfe was a corpulent (between 310-380 lbs) private detective, who occupied a New York City three-story brownstone. His right hand guy and leg-man, who also narrated the adventures, was Archie Goodwin. Wolfe lived well: besides Archie, the brownstone residents included a gardener, who helped him in his roof-top orchid greenhouse, and Fritz, his full-time cook. Now that I think of it, that was the total staff — who did the housecleaning and laundry?
When Wolfe wasn’t sitting at his desk thinking deep thoughts about the latest murder or confounding bumbling police detective Inspector Cramer, or working with Theodore in his orchid garden, he was eating and drinking. Stout’s fictional detective, who liked yellow pajamas, shirts and foods, ate exceptionally well and often.
Each book has at least one or more tasty menus, often described in detail (eventually, Stout published a cookbook). Wolfe ate prodigious amounts; for example, in two days, a half of a sheep, the various cuts and offal prepared 20 different ways; a entire roasted goose between 8 p.m. and midnight, as well as foods and menus from an all-nation cuisine. He drank 5 quarts of beer per day (in later books, he cut down to 4 quarts) and enjoyed a wine cellar that would make an oenophile weep with envy. Since none of Stout’s characters ever aged (Wolfe was 56 during the 40 years the books were written), neither did they have health issues in later life.
To Nero Wolfe, a meal without meat was in insult. There could be calf’s liver, various game bird, fillets of beef with “sauce Abano,” fresh pork tenderloin in a casserole with a spicy brown sauce, lamb kidneys with green peppers or with dumplings (made with lamb or beef marrow, spices and cooked in a heavy stock), lamb chops grilled with mustard butter, lamb kabobs, Georgia ham from pigs fed on peanuts and acorns, custom sausages, various cuts of beef, pork, lamb, goat chickens, squab, “Tennessee” opossum (not sure why that state’s critters are preferred) or squirrel stew, clam or crab cakes, braised anything once-living, and so on.
Every May, an upstate farmer shot 18 or 20 starlings, put them in his car and drove to New York within two hours of bagging them. He delivered the prize to Fritz, who dressed and salted them, wrapped them in sage, roasted the little flyers in butter. They were then served on a bed of polenta.
Now I love polenta, but was never tempted to try the starling thing. (If you’d like to try it, starlings are an alien species, there’s no limit, and I’m guessing they’d provide great sport. You can find them en masse on the I-5 bridge all winter. Permits are probably required (insert Demise of CRC joke here)) .
More than a few yarns include Wolfe’s love of shad roe, often cooked in butter and served on toast. I’ve fished for shad; they make great crab bait. One year I decided to try Nero’s roe; Fritz prepares them in several ways, and I followed the directions faithfully. Alas, they tasted terrible, Biscuit was mad about the smell left in her kitchen, and so I forgot about fish eggs, except for maybe a caviar treat when someone else is buying. Now, of course, they’re a regular item in sushi bars, although I’m not sure if shad roe made the menu.
Wolfe’s menus may be Stout’s best legacy, even more so than his murder mysteries. For many of us growing up mid-century, Wolfe’s palate was our first vicarious initiation to ethnic foods, both American and foreign. I’ve had squirrel stew (haven’t tried possum), and the shad roe thing didn’t work out. But he introduced me to fine cheeses, seafood, offal, complex sauces — foods I began enjoying as an adult and which we now almost take for granted. Of course, that’s thanks in large part to the immigration of diverse peoples who have so enriched our taste buds. What fun Wolfe would have had with Hispanic and Asian cuisine!
Although originally written for adults, I suggest Nero Wolfe’s mysteries are also a great read for a pre-pubescent teenage son or daughter: no hint of porn (unless Archie’s several times a week dancing in night clubs with Lily is code for something more carnal) and one can get more than a hint of early to mid-century customs and mores. I’m not sure if libraries still stock Nero Wolfe mysteries, but Amazon shows they’re still being printed. This winter — or maybe next week — I’ll start reading them once again.
And, I’ll pull out the Nero Wolfe Cookbook and try a few recipes. If you bag those starlings, I’ll help you roast them, at your house, OK?